How to do nothing at all (or, Making friends with our monkey minds)

By exploring what is outside of us, perhaps we may investigate what is within ourselves. — Pictures by CK Lim and Kenny Mah
By exploring what is outside of us, perhaps we may investigate what is within ourselves. — Pictures by CK Lim and Kenny Mah

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COMMENTARY, April 8 — You would think the stark beauty of the misty mountains and green valleys that surround us, the strange and curious creatures that frolic and flee when we approach, the stillness in the air and the delicious crunch beneath our hiking boots, that all these would make it easier to stay in the present.

All we could think was, Why can’t we get any signal here?

That was when we were sequestered like hermits in the heart of Patagonia. This meant no WiFi, no 4K TV, no Internet and no distractions aside from the ones that plagued our thoughts and our hearts.

ME: Ah, peace and quiet at last.

MY MIND: Why is it so quiet?

MY MIND: Where are all the other people?

MY MIND: I wonder what my friends have posted on Facebook.

MY MIND: Why no WiFi?

MY MIND: Why am I here?

MY MIND: This is the end of the world.

MY MIND: Seriously, no WiFi?

ME: Please. Shut. Up.

MY MIND: Oh, is it dinner time yet?

ME: ...

Our monkey minds never sleep.

I imagine it’s likely even harder when we are at home — living in the chaotic bustle that is our urban expanse — to stay in the moment. To simply do nothing at all, even on our days off from work.

Waking up and it's quiet – the rest of the world has vanished.
Waking up and it's quiet – the rest of the world has vanished.

For what are weekends but a packed itinerary of family dinners and catch-up sessions with friends? A chance to run errands, take the car to the workshop, get a haircut, and a hundred other Things That Need To Get Done.

We are conditioned to be busy, and to stay that way.

(The saying goes “as busy as bees” but surely bees have more purpose?)

Perhaps it has always been an ongoing concern, the desire to be able to let go and be okay with being alone. We can’t escape that nagging feeling at the back of our minds that if we hurry all the time, we are not going anywhere particular beyond rushing to an early grave.

So the past year has been a state of déjà vu of sorts for me, for many of us. Every day feels like it’s on autopilot and repeat mode.

Standing alone isn’t all bad; certainly this flamingo is enjoying the solitude and the view.
Standing alone isn’t all bad; certainly this flamingo is enjoying the solitude and the view.

Though we seem to sway between sheltering in place and business (almost) as usual — what with the different iterations and variations on the movement control order (MCO), the interstate travel restrictions, the closed borders — basically it doesn’t feel like we are going anywhere.

We are staying put, more or less, until the world becomes a safer place. As it should be.

How the sense of déjà vu shakes me is also remembering lessons from that aforementioned spell in the heart of Patagonia, a time of mountains and valleys. With nothing much to do but look at what is around us, that also felt like an episode of sheltering in place (albeit without the global health concerns).

And no, it was not a joyless time but a joyful one. (No matter how much my mind might crave the distractions and a strong WiFi signal in the beginning.)

We woke up at a reasonable hour, not flustered from insufficient sleep as a result of burning the midnight oil trawling YouTube or zombie-fied by inane TikTok clips. Waking up to discover a quiet we rarely experience — as though the rest of the world had vanished.

Rain doesn’t have to dampen your day: Dance outside or return to a cosy hideaway.
Rain doesn’t have to dampen your day: Dance outside or return to a cosy hideaway.

Without plans, without Things To Do, what could we do but explore what was before us, what was around us and beyond. We saw trees we never noticed before. Sounds and scurrying revealing small animals that evaded us and those that did not.

We felt lighter, as though we had fewer burdens to carry though we did not even realise we were carrying any. Birdsong and a cluster of clouds. A cold wind, the screech of a soaring raptor successfully snatching up its prey.

By exploring what is outside of us, perhaps we may investigate what is within ourselves.

But who wishes to be alone to achieve this, you wonder? Well, standing alone isn’t all bad; certainly one solitary flamingo we observed was enjoying the solitude and the view. (Or it was patiently waiting for food to appear. Probably that.)

Who says we have to be entirely alone to do nothing at all? The art of non-productivity is best practised with a partner, preferably one whose company you enjoy.

If nothing else, it is a test of how comfortable you are with each other, to not have distractions and never-ending activities to give you reason to even spend time together.

A contemplative moment.
A contemplative moment.

We learn to modify our behaviour, our entrenched patterns. As author and chess child prodigy Josh Waitzkin shared with his young son, there is no good or bad weather — only weather. We make of it what we will.

So rain, for instance, doesn’t have to dampen your day: Dance outside — it’s okay to get wet; it’s only a little water — or return to a cosy hideaway, where warmth and comfort await.

What if those rooms are empty — what if your own room is empty? Bereft of companionship and conversations? Again: perhaps we are merely seeking distractions.

Empty rooms aren’t horrifying but spaces full of hope and possibility. We can share a contemplative moment... with ourselves.

I would love to say that I carry my own private Patagonia with me wherever I go. That there is a paradise in my heart I can return to at a moment’s notice.

But that would be a lie. Most days I am inundated with the 1,001 different crises that demand my attention, each doing their best impression of Puss-in-Boots saucer-sized eyes to plead for resolution (like, right now.)

Empty rooms aren’t horrifying but spaces full of hope and possibility.
Empty rooms aren’t horrifying but spaces full of hope and possibility.

In the end, I have to confess it’s enough that I make enough space for myself, allocate enough time for myself. Take sabbaticals from social media feeds. Go for a walk when things get too heavy. Remember to breathe.

MY MIND: Why is it so quiet?

ME: Okay.

MY MIND: Where are all the other people?

ME: Okay.

MY MIND: I wonder what my friends have posted on Facebook.

ME: Okay.

MY MIND: Why no WiFi?

ME: Okay.

MY MIND: Seriously?

ME: Okay.

MY MIND: Ah, never mind!!!

MY MIND: [finally shuts up]

ME: Ah, peace and quiet at last.

We can make friends with our monkey minds, and — surprise! surprise! — with ourselves too, we shall find.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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